Recently, I’ve been taking a lot of children to doctors. It’s giving me a certain déjà vu — but not the kind you think.
Five young ones, ages 1, 3, 7, 10 and 12 are currently in our house, all children from the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Each of them has some medical issue that can’t be addressed in Haiti.
So off we go, day after day, to different doctors. Along the way, I’ve been studying their reactions.
After all, “The Doctor Visit” is something we all went through as kids. Our responses ranged from paralyzing horror to “Do I get a lollipop?”
It’s pretty much the same with the Haitian children. The littlest one, only 19 months, has already figured out that when we get into that room and see the man with the stethoscope, it’s time to start screaming.
She wails. She gushes tears. That’s before the doctor does anything. Doesn’t matter. She remembers the vaccination needles she endured in a previous visit, and that’s enough. Cue the terror!
The 3-year-old is slightly more trusting. He hasn’t been poked yet. But he’s not happy to be there. He stares at the doctors who make him do different things with his arms and legs, wondering how far he should let this go before hitting the panic button.
The 7-year-old, having done this many times, takes it cautiously, on a case-by-case basis. As long as you assure her there will be no needles, she’ll follow you in. But there’s a big-eyed look of warning on her face, and she clings to you to make sure you don’t break your promise.
Who’s the kid in this scenario?
The 10-year-old, a strong, highly energetic boy, is fearless. He can’t imagine anything bad happening. He enters the examining room and bounces up on the table. He drums on the walls. At one point, while I’m distracted by the babies, he disappears.
I march up and down the hallways until I find him in another patient’s room, standing near a highly confused family who don’t know what to make of this strange boy looking over the doctor’s shoulder, as if he’s a medical student.
I apologize, pull him out, and tell him that, while we do teach “sharing” at the orphanage, this is not one of those times.
The 12-year-old, having been coming here the longest, takes it all in stride. He rolls up his sleeves, gets his injections, slaps a high-five when the doctor offers one, and wonders when we can go home.
All this seems normal for child-doctor relationships, and I’m sure I behaved the same way at different times when I was a kid.
But that’s not the déjà vu.
The déjà vu is how I’ve behaved as an adult.
Looking back, it seems that in my 30s, when I went to the doctor, I was like the 10-year-old, confident, curious, not the slightest tinge of worry.
In my 40s, I was like the 12-year-old, come in, do the physical, get it over with.
In my 50s, after enduring some medical issues, I became hesitant, like the 7-year-old; OK with the exam as long as I knew what was coming. No surprises.
And these days, I find myself closer to the 3-year-old. Nervous. Worried. Wondering how close the visit will bring me to something bad, and wishing I didn’t have to be there.
Fearing the worst
Apparently, I am not alone. A recent study by the Cleveland Clinic showed that nearly two-thirds of men avoid going to the doctor, and more than a third hide information from their physicians when they do go. The hesitancy seems strongest in middle-age men, but remains acute as you age.
The reason? Well. It varies. Some say men don’t believe they need medical attention. Others suggest they don’t want to waste time, figuring the issue will resolve itself.
But I tend to agree with an expert who told Heathline.com, “I think the No. 1 reason men avoid the doctor is fear. They worry about a bad diagnosis or a bad outcome.”
Of course, we do. As we near retirement, the idea of things coming to an end, including our health, becomes more real. And having to face it becomes more frightening.
And so we harken back to the kid inside us. Doctors make us scared, not so much because of the needle they will stick us with, but the news.
Let’s be honest. From our 50s and beyond, we fear the diagnosis. We fear the grim-faced doctor who says “We see a little spot on the CT scan.” Or, “your bloodwork is concerning.”
Those in my generation have now seen friends die from heart attacks, colleagues at work get diagnosed with colon cancer, loved ones go in for a physical and wind up being sent to a specialist.
Is it any wonder that the visit to the doctor — which used to get you a thumbs-up or, at the worst, “You need to lose a little weight” — now makes us sweat?
Aging stinks. Vulnerability stinks. And doctors are the ones who remind us of it. We like to think we’re brave, that with age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes strength.
But maybe, when it comes to health, we go one way for many years, and then we start going backward. Maybe courage is cyclical, and it’s just a matter of time before we revert to 1-year-old status: we see a doctor and burst into tears.
I hope not. That would be embarrassing. But either way, it’s been very instructional, watching the kids visit the doctor and realizing there is one more big kid with them, and it’s me.